Category Archives: Bit of politics

The Corbyn Effect, or ‘you’re nobody til everybody hates you’

There were a couple of by-elections in the UK this week, both in traditionally-safe-ish Labour seats.

Normally in the sixth year of Conservative government, this would be a boring event that nobody cared about: a medium-strength opposition wins government seats at by-elections (even if, as with Labour under Neil Kinnock pre-1992 and under Ed Miliband pre-2015, it will go on to narrowly lose the general), but even a weak opposition holds its own seats.

However, the times right now aren’t normal, and so Labour was seen as under threat – from the shambolically dumb and awful neo-fascists of UKIP in depressed former pottery town Stoke on Trent Central, and from the Tories in part-ex-industrial-towns, part-nuclear-power-plant, part-grumpy-farmers Copeland. The threats were real. As the fascists imploded, Labour beat them by a not-exactly-resounding-but-better-than-feared majority of 2,620. Meanwhile, the Tories won Copeland with a majority of 2,147.

This fits the post-Brexit course of UK politics: Labour’s performance in 2010 and 2015 was artificially propped up because the kind of traditional Tories who don’t-want-a-person-of-colour-for-a-neighbour voted UKIP. Now that the Tory party is led by a petty authoritarian who hates everything from after 1953, rather than a toff who loves money and doesn’t really care very much about anything else, these people have gone back to the Tories.

Labour’s hilariously awful leadership and infighting over the last 18 months hasn’t helped, and certainly hasn’t provided an alternative narrative, but at worst Jeremy Corbyn and his backstabbier rivals are drilling new holes in the bottom of a ship that was already leaking and on course for the rocks anyway.

What does any of this have to do with popularity?

After the election, Momentum true believers – both within the Labour party organisation and outside – displayed an Iraqi Information Minister-ish commitment to presenting the results as a Great Victory. I was particularly struck by the quote in this tweet:

On the face of it, Lavery’s claim is ridiculous. But there are some completely reasonable definitions of ‘popularity’ under which he has a point.

Like most of the people reading this piece, I would score net favourability of zero in an opinion poll, because only a niche selection of transport and politics wonks have the slighest idea who I am. In one sense, that makes me 40 points more popular than Jeremy Corbyn. But in another sense it’s silly to say that I’m vastly more popular than Jeremy Corbyn, because if I organised a weird cult rally in my name then the turnout would be nobody; probably not even my boyfriend, and certainly not 50,000 Momentum pod people.

The difference here is gross and net popularity. Both are important in political leaders, depending on the kind of organisation they lead and the kind of electoral system within which they operate, but we tend to dwell on the net numbers. So, I’ve put together a chart aggregating poll results in order to show gross popularity and unpopularity of various UK political leaders, which reflects the fact that most people haven’t heard of most of them:

This is based on two slightly different YouGov polls – one from 2-3 Feb 2017 of famous politicians and one from 13-21 Feb 2017 of Labour politicians (PDF). YouGov calculated the numbers for non-Labour politicians; I calculated the numbers for Labour politicians.

So the claim that Jeremy Corbyn is one of Britain’s most popular politicians is defensible. On gross popularity, he’s the sixth-most popular current Westminster politician, of the ones for whom I could find recent data. At the same time, he’s the most unpopular current Westminster politician by a fairly wide margin.

The problem here comes when we think about when the two different sorts of popularity are relevant.

If you want to dress up as an evil clown and sell albums to dumb flyover state poor people, then being extremely unpopular on net but with high gross popularity is a route to immense success. If you want to push horrific far-right ideas into mainstream UK discourse and then fuck off to America to do speaking tours to dumb flyover state rich people, then likewise.

On the other hand, if you want to become President of France, then the runoff electoral system means that you need decent net popularity. The two candidates with the highest gross popularity will get into the run-off, but then the candidate who the voters of France hate the least will be the winner. This setup kept Jean-Marie Le Pen out of the Élysée in 2002, and hopefully will keep his daughter out this year.

The UK Labour Party, traditionally, competed in the President of France space: a centre-left party that people voted for under the UK’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system because they thought it was less awful than whatever the Tory Party was up to at the time. That requires leadership with decent net popularity, and high gross popularity isn’t very important.

However, Corbyn’s popularity is the opposite: someone who has a strong enough following of fervent weirdos that their success condition is “shifting the acceptable window of mainstream opinion”. This isn’t a bad thing in its own right; there’s a reasonable argument that we need a Farage-of-the-left to counter the global rise of far-right ideology. The probem is that at the same time, it isn’t a particularly great idea for either side to chain such a movement to a moderate centre-left party seeking to defend its position in hundreds of FPTP seats.

Header image by The People Speak / CC-BY 2.0.

Still, that railway, from the south

Southern’s parent company know that they’re in the G4S bracket of mean thugs. The government know it, and that’s what they’re for.  The RMT know it, and fighting them is their job.  The non-union marketing people at Southern, who are probably your nice mates, don’t. This is unfortunate.

Me at the New Statesman

The future, and other things I have no idea about

I’ve not been blogging here a lot lately. Partly because I’ve been doing that horrible thing known as “working for money and trying to forget”, partly because now that Facey and Insty exist, there’s no real need to stick amazing holiday photos up here, and partly because Brexit has completely fucked up my predictions and comprehensions about how the world goes.

Instead, here are some very different views (reproduced with permission) from very clever people who I know and respect on the future of the UK and how that affects the future of Labour. I struggle to disagree with any of these positions, which is unfortunate, because they are somewhat incompatible.

Richard / Academic:

I know many people who were heavily emotionally invested in Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, so I understand strong reactions to the Parliamentary Labour Party’s coup: feelings of betrayal, anger, frustration, sadness, outrage.

What I can’t understand is denial that it has happened or what that implies. It is unprecedented to ask the country to elect a PM who does not command the confidence of the government that he would need to lead. The reason it is unprecedented is that it is an obviously terrible idea. It is mad.

Voters up and down the country will be perplexedly asking their Labour MPs “You said that you didn’t have confidence in Corbyn, so why are you now saying that I should?”

Tom / Nurse:

Jeremy Corbyn is taking the honest strategy of canvassing and sticking to his beliefs that he has fought for for the last 30 years. By the time the next election comes along the country will see that the media can’t lie about him longer than he can be him.

The “coup and constant infighting” ( which he isn’t rising to) is led by those elected not following the wishes of those who elected them. The huge rise in party members shows that. For MPs to lie is normal; for MPs to go against the majority wishes of those who voted for them is just shameful. The current situation isn’t working for the people under the Tories – and I don’t see any natural Labour voters voting for people like Smith, who abstained on cutting welfare and has no real policy alternative.

It’s sad that, like myself, many traditional Labour voters have become middle class – but they’ve forgotten where they came from and the hardships it entails. This leads to leaning to the middle with the loss of real socialism, and  forgetting how a little help makes a big difference to those on the breadline. It’s just so disheartening.

John / Banker:

Brexit will be discredited as the reduction in investment and rise in unemployment bite over the next several months. The autumn financial statement will likely be a horror show and next year’s budget even worse. Davies, Boris and Fox will end the year empty handed without the treaties they promised would be easy to negotiate when they campaigned for Brexit. The constitutional problem with Scotland and Northern Ireland needs more time to fester.

While the government is tilting at windmills, the cost of denying the Blairites the chance to regain control of the Labour Party is not that high.

It is much more important to give the PLP conspirators a thrashing and continue a radical reorientation of Labour Party policy to the relief of poverty and effective housing and regional policies.  Maybe next year a challenger will emerge who is more effective as a leader and yet embraces the politics of inclusion rather than elitism. Owen Smith is most unlikely to be that person.

Do you have a completely incompatible position on the current state of the UK that I also have sympathy towards? Why not post it in the comments?

 

Southern Railway, now arriving in 1973

I did a piece at Citymetric on why the disastrous shenanigans at Southern Railway are actually a resumption of a very old battle. They paid me a lot less than a Southern Railway guard gets for the same hours. I probably enjoyed it more, though.

Image: an EMD E6A leading the US Southern Railway’s The Tennessean (public domain). Used solely to annoy lazy picture editors.

Actually, it’s about ethics in plebiscite campaigning

I’ve refrained from long-form comment on the UK’s EU referendum, partly because the debate is generally painful, but also because there are extremely clever people who’ve already made most of the points I’ve wanted to make.

One thing that I think is worth addressing, though, is the current suggestion that people are switching back to Remain because they “don’t know what Brexit looks like” (thanks to Paul Evans for the formulation here). I think this is definitely true; I also think it’s a positive response to a specific failure within the Leave campaigns [1], not just a fear of change.

The reason “we don’t know what it looks like” is that the people who are in favour of it have polar opposite, completely contradictory visions of what it should look like.

When Scots voted on their Remain/Leave decision, the SNP – to its great credit – published a long document containing the details of exactly what it would do in the event of independence. Some of these were criticised for over-the-top optimism about the actions of rUK and the EU, and others on the basis of their effect, but crucially Scots knew what the people in charge after a Leave vote would try to do [2].

That simply doesn’t exist for the UK EU referendum. The Leave campaigns, all of which include people likely to be in government in the event that Leave wins, have adopted positions that range from “staying in the free migration zone and the common market” through to “deporting settled EU migrants and relying solely on WTO basic rules for trade access”.

That – not the inherent uncertainty in doing anything that hasn’t been done before – is the crux of the “not knowing what it looks like” problem.

That deliberate, dishonest ambiguity is also why Leave has done far better than it would have done had it been forced to outline what it would actually be attempting to do in the event of a referendum win. As it is, “build a libertarian paradise with no tariffs and open borders”, and “Britain first, deport all the immigrants” types can rally round the same banner, even though they disagree with each other at least as much as they disagree with the current model.

[1] The existence of “Leave campaigns” with an S is probably the tl/dr of this.

[2] The SNP white paper was flawed and optimistic, but at least it was there for you to be able to critique its optimism and flaws. Similarly, a Leave manifesto that committed to a Norway model could reasonably be critiqued on the basis that the EU might not let us have one – but in the actual campaign we’ve seen every model of multilateralism/autarky from Norway through to North Korea thrown up, dependent on what the politician in question thinks the audience wants to hear. “Is their plan credible” is secondary to “do they even have one”…

Electability and absurd arrogance

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next US general election. I also didn’t know what was going to happen in the US electoral primaries, although I don’t think there’s any great shame in admitting the current situation isn’t what I anticipated.

It seems highly likely, at this point, that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate, barring the kind of machinations that haven’t been seen since Andrew Jackson’s day. The Democratic primary process is far closer, although Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by a comfortable-looking margin at the moment.

Mr Trump is a squalid, crooked neo-fascist – basically Silvio Berlusconi with added racism. Anyone saying they know exactly why he’s popular is full of shit, but it’s clearly a combination of angry white bigotry, disillusionment with Washington’s specific flavour of insider crookery, and susceptibility to the daft concept of career success as a marker of general merit (the latter is also why people unfortunately listen to Richard Dawkins’ views on Muslim theology and Barry Humphries’ views on gender theory).

Various people in the pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders camps have suggested over the last couple of months that their candidate is electable, whilst the other candidate is un-electable. I’ve seen more Clinton fans go down this route than Sanders fans, but not by a huge margin.

There are arguments why this might be the case for either candidate. Mr Trump’s success is based on disillusioned white working class male voters, and these are also Mr Sanders’ strong group by a wide margin. On the other hand, Ms Clinton has managed to combine strong popularity among black voters – whose increased turnout compared to previous years was important in President Obama’s success – with grumpy acceptance among moderate centrist Republicans (including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg) as a tolerable alternative to Mr Trump.

But with these good arguments on either side, and given the extent to which punditry in this Presidential race has already failed dismally, anyone who says “you should vote for Ms Clinton/Mr Sanders in the primary because they’re the only one who’s electable” is an absurd arrogant fool.

My preference is that the clown show leaves town

Like most countries founded by people with a passionate and blind terror that they might at some point be subjected to democracy, Australia has a Senate with more-or-less absolute veto power over its House of Representatives.

As in many federal countries, Australian Senators are allocated on a state-by-state basis, not on a citizen-by-citizen basis. The result is that a Senate voter in Tasmania (population 550,000) has more than 12 times the say of a Senate voter in New South Wales (population 7.5 million).

In other words, the Senate is entirely unrepresentative by deliberate design, and anyone who cares at all about voter representation should solidly be lobbying to either abolish state-by-state voting or to abolish the Senate itself.

There is currently a mass debate about Senate reform in Australia. Unsurprisingly, it consists of absolutely none of this, but instead is an absurd and unedifying clown show. The net result is that the Green Party and the Liberal (conservative) Party have agreed a reform deal that tinkers slightly with the voting system, and various people on the political left are displeased.

The ABC’s excellent commentator Antony Green has the gory details,  but in short (detail brutalised for clarity; not importantly for these purposes, but make sure to plagiarise Antony and not me for your civics class):

  • Under the current system, you go to the election booth, be given a list of parties standing in the Senate, tick a box for your favourite, and then if they fail to get in, then your preferences are distributed according to a list that they have created in advance, all the way from Candidate #1 to Candidate #200.
  • Under the new system, you will go to the election booth, be given a list of parties standing in the Senate, number your favourites from one to six (and continue after six until you’ve numbered everyone or can’t be bothered to write any more), then your preferences will be distributed according to the order you wrote. If everyone you’ve listed gets eliminated, your vote gets thrown away.
  • Both systems also give you the option to number your own candidates from #1 to #200 if you are weird, but nobody actually does this. Under the current system you must number all boxes; under the new system you will only have to number 12 boxes but can number more if you like.

The most important thing about this change is it makes very little difference to what normal voters do, which is to vote 1 for Labour, Liberal or Greens, preference whichever of the other two they hate the least above the one they hate the most, and then number as many other boxes as they are grumpily made to.

The second most important thing about the change is that it’s a very minor improvement on the status quo. Normal people will be making their own choices, rather than following a dodgy list that’s inevitably compiled for tactical rather than ideological sympathy reasons. Weird people will no longer get hand cramp from numbering 200 boxes.

So why on earth is there an outcry?

Well, the only people who lose out from this process are old-school corrupt party machine politicians who trade votes like commodities… I wonder if these people have privileged access to media platforms at all?